Marketed with a definite Taken 2 vibe, Unknown – another high-octane, thriller starring the most fashionable action lead of recent years Liam Neeson – is far more than simply that. It is better to consider the movie as a tense and surprisingly successful amalgam of Taken, the Bourne franchise and Arlington Road, with a typically intense performance in the lead by Neesson. And it’s available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray now, a mere couple of weeks since dropping out of the UK Film Box Office Top Ten.
You can easily see where the Taken comparisons come from – Neeson plays an American in a foreign country, locked in a cat and mouse game with some invisible malignant force, an island of isolation. Only this time, Neesson’s Dr Martin Harris is the mouse, the apparent victim of some identity-stealing plot – another man claiming to be him, his wife, nor the rest of the world not recognising him – and unlike Taken’s Bryan Mills, without the certain special skill set to take on his enemies on their own terms. He is the embodiment of one of those canonical “What If” posers that breed a number of films – in this case, what if you woke up from a coma and someone else had stolen your life. Not exactly new, but the combination of that staple thriller idea and introduction of a chase element (thanks to the shady men in black chasing him) does inspire a little more than a slightly cynical sigh of resignation here.
The power of Neeson’s appeal in these roles relies on his ability to combine an everyman appeal, thanks to a tangible ability to inspire empathy, and a poise and presence that suggests power and even physical threat. The dichotomy of his physicality and his warm nature on-screen of course made him the ideal candidate for Schindler, and these days it is determining that like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson before him, he can create utterly engaging, sympathetic hero types who can kick some serious tail at the same time as getting under our skin. He is the antithesis of Statham and his ilk, the same as Willis and Gibson represented the flip-side to knuckle-headed, muscle bound oafs like Van Damme and Stallone. And in Unknown, he is something of a thinking man’s action star, with more presence and more gravitas than the younger poster-boys of say Jake Gyllenhaal or Bradley Cooper.
Because of the recognisable elements from other films – there are in fact far more than are name-checked above – the film feels very familiar, and also perhaps reminiscent of films from the same era that spawned Mel Gibson’s excellent Ransom, Payback and Conspiracy Theory, meshed also with the more modern work of Luc Besson (though minus the occasional fetishism of violence). There is a similar sense of isolation, and a penchant for a slow-building claustrophobic tone, and a similar total focus on the main character, usually to the detriment of all other character development.
And while the film isn’t exactly a head-turner when it comes to intellectual undertones, it’s still a million miles away from anything Jason Statham has ever turned his hand to, thanks to some surprising complexities as the plot unravels. Crucially, though it is never too easy to work out exactly what the twist is, there is enough clever deception and misdirection to make the revelation genuinely shocking when it lands.
But unfortunately Unknown is just a little too slow in getting there, a little too ponderous to really make the threat to Neeson’s Dr Harris feel particularly immediate, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine viewers turning off before the revelation when the pacing get particularly sticky in the mid-section. I would say endure that section, because the appearance of first the always exceptional Bruno Ganz as a private detective (who puts in the most convincing performance of the whole film), and then a fleeting, but anchoring appearance by Frank Langella give the film’s narrative the injection of originality (or at least comparative in relation to the “borrowed” elements) that just about brings it back from the brink.
The cast is rounded out by January Jones, who has literally nothing to do but look attractive, and Diane Kruger, who is criminally under-valued as Neeson’s female side-kick (another generic staple of course). Neither is written well (Jones isn’t written at all), and both are far bigger talents than these roles suggest, but then this is Neeson’s show and it is only minimally that Ganz manages to pull his head above the rest of the talent.
Unknown isn’t offensive at all, but it isn’t startlingly good either. It is a near-perfect popcorn thriller that convinces of its story despite some fairly ludicrous plot shifts and an ultimately very self-serving resolution, and there is a lot to be said for the escapist element of watching Neeson be chased around a dismal looking Berlin. It isn’t as good as Taken, but it’s still a reasonably strong performance by Neeson (even if we all wish he’d make higher-brow, more worthy fare than this), and there is enough enjoyment in the thrills and spills to make the film a diverting experience.
The film itself might polarize audiences, but the visual quality is sure to blow everyone away: the transfer is near-perfect, unblemished by artificial tinkering, and beautifully textured. The pallette is typically muted of a Hollywood imagining of Germany, but colours are succinct and authentic, with extremely good black levels, and overall it’s an exceptional HD transfer.
The audio is just as impressive, and perfectly suited to the more energetic levels when the genre side of things bursts out a bit more. The track is immersive and crystal clear, from bombastic sequences to dialogue heavy passages and again there is very little to put forward that suggests anything but the highest accolades are due here.
I was occasionally aware of facial detail being almost completely wiped out – for some reason it happened to Diane Kruger more than anyone – but it is a minimal concern compared to the majesty of everything else.
Not a special collection of additional features really, with three behind the scenes featurettes, one of which explicitly suggests that Unknown was little more than a direct response to Liam Neeson’s recent on-screen work, which somewhat devalues the role of the writers and director, but on reflection it explains a lot. No commentary track, sadly, and that’s bad form for any release in my opinion.
- Unknown: The Story
- Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero
- Behind The Scenes
- Interviews with Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Jaume Collet-Serra and Joel Silver
This article was first posted on July 19, 2011